During the last four years, several new restaurants have been opened in Gaza by Syrians who fled their country due to the violent uprising. All of these restaurants are run by men–that is, until three weeks ago. That’s when the Al-Sham Al-Ateeqa (“old Levant”) restaurant was opened by a woman, with the help of her family.
When I entered the restaurant, 54-year-old Rateeba Ahel happily showed me the cake she had just made for a birthday. She was very excited!
Rateeba’s family is originally from Em Al-Fahm, a small town near Jenin in the West Bank. However, she was born and raised in Syria. Rateeba married Nahed Ahel, a Palestinian from Gaza who traveled to Syria to continue his education, but ended up staying. They had four sons and two daughters, who they raised in Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp. Nahed sold fish and Rateeba made and sold handmade crafts.
In 2012, Yarmouk had become a dangerous place to live in as the civil war escalated. Thus, they fled to Nahed’s old home in Gaza, where they rented a house. At the beginning, they faced many obstacles, including finding jobs. Unemployment in Gaza is more than 40 percent.
“My son Moatasim is a technician who works with gypsum (a mineral in the plaster used to decorate the walls and ceilings of homes), but sometimes he has no work for 10 days,” Rateeba explains.
They and other escapees from Syria are regarded with pity, which goes against their pride. However, they do their best to prove themselves and live in dignity.
One day, Rateeba’s 7-year-old son was asked to bring a homemade dessert or other food item to school. The teachers loved the taste of the Syrian tabouleh (a vegetarian dish made of tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, bulgur and onion) and kebbeh (ground lean meat such as beef or lamb mixed with bulgur, minced onions and Middle Eastern spices) sent by Rateeba. Soon, they were asking her to make other dishes, and the orders escalated as word got around. When her husband asked if she was sure she could keep up, she said “Let’s give it a try.” Other family members helped fulfill the orders, from slicing onions to packing up the food. Nahed couldn’t work due to his heart disease, “but he’s my biggest fan and supporter,” she says.
Recently, a group of friends and an organization called Islamic Relief helped her open a small restaurant near her home in Gaza City. Although she has her signature dishes, Rateeba is ready and willing to prepare whatever food customers request, if they do so a day before. Moatism is known for pies baked in the traditional clay oven called a taboon.
Despite the debts required to open the restaurant, Rateeba is determined to support her family and prove her ability. Her dream is to expand her restaurant.
“I’m so grateful for this that I feel I’m the wealthiest person on earth,” she says. “The ideal day is when I meet with my friends over food, talking and laughing.”
It’s true that Rateeba is a good cook, and that the drama over the ongoing war in Syria helps promote her restaurant. But when I met Rateeba and her family members, I saw the biggest reason for her success: the love she pours into every cake and pie.